Tuija Saresma named Academic of the Year

Hate speech researcher exposes its impacts on researchers, science and societal structures. “We can’t turn a blind eye to hate speech.”

This year’s Academic of the Year award granted by the Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers goes to Tuija Saresma, Docent of Cultural and Gender Studies. She is a recognised researcher and an active participant in social discourse, who has bravely introduced into public discussion her tough research topics, such as online hate and hate speech.

“On the level of society, it is quite important that there are researchers with courage and willingness to tackle politically sensitive research topics and bring them into public discourse. It is necessary to highlight the impacts hate speech may have on research, science and the structures of democratic society. It benefits us all that research is not limited to topics that just feel nice. That is the only way to change the world,” Maija S. Peltola, President of FUURT, justifies the award.

A senior lecturer of contemporary culture studies at the University of Jyväskylä, Saresma has worked tirelessly and using facts to increase public understanding of the impacts of hate speech on research work and science and thus, more broadly, on the entire society. She headed the Government-commissioned Online Hate project, whose report was published in June 2022, investigating the producers and distributors of hate speech. She heads the local Jyväskylä project of a consortium exploring online hate as an affective practice, funded by the Academy of Finland. Saresma has not given up even though she has herself been the target of online shaming, or crowdsourced harassment.

“We can’t turn a blind eye to hate speech. For me, it is an ethical choice to study a politically flammable topic. The Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers does valuable work in defending the freedom of research and opposing attempts to dictate acceptable research topics, which have become more common in Finland as well,” Tuija Saresma says.

It must be possible to discuss research results without fear

Researchers and their work are the target of ever more inappropriate comments and threats in social media, which endangers the freedom of research guaranteed by the Constitution of Finland. One tool that the Union considers useful in safeguarding the position of researchers in a polarised atmosphere would be the criminalisation of online shaming as a separate type of crime. The Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers is worried because some researchers already say that the fear of becoming a target of harassment or online shaming affects their choice of research topics or desire to appear in public.

“Science will remain in the academic world if researchers cannot communicate their research results and their science-based views without fear. It is vital for Finland’s mental and economic well-being that decision-making is based on high-quality, versatile research that is not limited by political or any other grounds,” Maija S. Peltola stresses.

Saresma sees the aim of hate speech as dangerous. “The aim is to steer social discourse, to erode trust and, ultimately, to eat away at democracy. I want to contribute to retaining the freedom of science and research. Fear-induced self-censorship ultimately threatens the freedom of speech, which in a democratic society, must apply to everyone, not just the groups with the most social power.”

Photo: Petteri Kivimäki